We’re onto our fourth essay about battles, and I’m only just now turning to what most people probably think of first when they hear the word: two armies squaring up and facing off in the field.
There’s several reasons for this. One is that, as a percentage of warfare throughout history, open engagements of that sort are most likely in the minority. They’re the ones we remember and write about in history books as the Battle of Wherever, but they’re vastly outnumbered by the raids and other such informal clashes, which don’t usually get recorded in such detail. Another is encapsulated by this quote from the blog of military historian Bret Devereaux (whose fingerprints are, yes, all over these essays):
the battle is, in this equation, a ‘second order’ concern: merely an event which enables (or prohibits) a siege […] if a defender can not have a siege by virtue of a battle, it almost always makes sense to try that, but […] The siege, and the capture or non-capture of the town (with its role as an administrative center for the agricultural hinterland around it) is what matters.
We may be prone to thinking that the most important objective is smashing the other guy’s army, but especially in pre-industrial times, that’s not where the focus truly lies. Getting the other army out of the way makes taking control of the land easier, but it’s not the end goal.
The road to battle can take a number of different forms, from days or weeks of careful maneuvering to try and ensure the most favorable conditions for your own side to inadvertently tripping over a force you didn’t even know was there and scrambling to respond. The possibility of tripping in such fashion points us toward the importance of intelligence (in the “gathering information” sense, not just the “being smart” sense), but as that bleeds into the larger importance of intelligence for statecraft in general, we won’t try to tackle that here.
Instead, let’s look at the battle itself. What does that even look like?
I often say in these essays that thus-and-such depends on the time period and culture in question, and that’s true here, too. But in addition to that, there’s are some very concrete variables, which are where you’re fighting, what types of forces you’re bringing to the battle, what they’re armed with. Warfare with a hoplite phalanx looks incredibly different from a cavalry charge, which in turn is nothing like a howitzter barrage! We’ve touched a bit on the different types of military force and how they’re trained (back in Year Five), but a full unpacking of the differences is honestly well beyond both my capabilities and the scope of this Patreon.
What I do want to talk about is the more culturally-shaped side, i.e. how people think war ought to be conducted. Is there any honor on the battlefield? Maybe; every society has had actions they’ve considered beyond the pale. I suspect, though, that fiction has a tendency to overstate how strongly and how frequently such norms are adhered to. However noble it may be to allow your enemy to withdraw in good order from a losing battle, pressing your advantage and capturing or killing everybody you can reduces the risk that you’ll have to do this all over again later on, after the enemy has had a chance to regroup.
At the same time — and this is where tonal differences come in, e.g. with the “grimdark” end of fantasy and science fiction — it’s not like such mercies never happened. Take the instance of a multi-day or at least multi-phase battle, where combat halts for a time with both sides retreating a short distance. Do you allow the other side to retrieve their wounded and their dead without being harassed? Quite possibly yes, for several reasons: there may be strong social pressure toward treating medical personnel as non-combatants or showing respect to the dead; granting that space allows you to do the same for your own casualties; and any soldiers not able to walk off the field under their own power aren’t likely to be an immediate threat to you anyway. In fact, they might just be a drain on the enemy’s resources: anti-personnel land mines are often designed to maim rather than kill precisely because the target side is then burdened with the task of treating and evacuating the wounded soldier. Of course, the same is true for you and your own wounded . . . but any army that treats its forces as fully disposable is going to face a morale problem very fast.
(Unless, of course, magic or fictional tech intervene. That’s always the corollary to these kinds of points, whether I state it outright or not: if instant healing is abundant, for example, or if the loyalty of the ranks is enforced through mind control, these calculations may change.)
I do want to make two points about the nature of combat, though. One is that, although movies and TV usually depict melee combat as being the high-speed crash of two forces and the instant admixture of combatants, such that you’re surrounded on all sides by one-on-one clashes and can hardly tell who’s friend and who’s foe . . . yeah, that’s not generally how it works. If you’re in that situation, then your side has broken and you’re being routed. For hand-to-hand combat, armies strive to maintain their line precisely to avoid this scenario — but that’s less dramatic on the screen, and so we get wild chaos instead.
At the other end of the spectrum, you get the situation that crops up all the time in the traditional narratives of many societies. Here the two armies square up . . . and then each sends a champion out into the open ground between their lines to fight the other side’s champion. There may be many sequential instances of this, either with different match-ups or with one particularly strong warrior defeating five of ten or even fifty opponents in single combat, but either way, the rank and file just stand and observe while all of this is going on.
I honestly have no idea whether this was ever a genuine feature of ancient combat. I suspect it’s a question we can’t answer properly (since we’re talking about a situation for which the only evidence would be the stories told about it afterward), but I could maybe see it happening in a context where warfare is more a ritual performance than actual military operations. By and large, though, this falls very much into the bucket of heroic narrative, more than realistic combat — which doesn’t mean you can’t use it in fiction! Just that it belongs more in certain types of fiction than others.
Overall, though, I find myself thinking about what someone posted to the forums on EN World back in 2012. Discussing the different styles seen among players of Dungeons & Dragons and similar role-playing games, Daztur contrasted two modes:
Combat as Sport: valuing the separate roles of the quarterback, linebacker and wide receiver and what plays you can use to win a competitive game.
Combat as War: being too busy laying your end zone with caltrops, dousing the midfield with lamp oil, blackmailing the ref, spiking the other team’s water and bribing key members of the other team to throw the game to worry about all of those damn squiggles on the blackboard.
However much value this holds in the context of a game, when it comes to real warfare, I think the contrast is a false one. A good commander should absolutely know, value, and effectively use the different components of their forces — but unlike the “combat as sport” side Daztur describes, if said commander can possibly unbalance the situation in his own favor, he’ll do it in a heartbeat. There’s very little reason to seek out a “fair fight” just for the thrill of the challenge; the point is to win.
Or rather, the point is to enable or prohibit the siege. (At least when you’re in a pre-industrial society.)